General Principles for Disciplining Children

Discipline is teaching a child about limits, expectations, responsibilities, developing self-control, confidence and learning to control impulses and frustration.

While punishment is sometimes useful to teach a child a what not to do, the key to discipline is encouraging and praising the child for what he should be doing, teaching a child how to do the right things and having the child learn how to conduct himself. Positive reinforcement works wonders compared to punishment.

The biggest problem parents have is when the child is being good.

When children are playing quietly and not getting in the way, parents tend to go about their business and spend less energy and attention on the child. The child is left alone. Only when he acts up does the parent return to deal with the child and discipline him. Most children would rather have Mom or Dad there fussing with them than be left alone, so they act up.

Try to reverse this; pay more attention to him, talk to him more, praise him, and deal with him more when he is being good. You’ll find that he’ll stay good longer and will appreciate all the attention. He won’t need to act up.

Don’t mistake normal, exploratory behavior for purposefully being bad.

A child between 12 months and 3 years old is curious about his world. He has no sense of order or cleanliness and just goes about making a mess. This is all normal exploratory behavior. He is not being bad but curious. Parents should not try to stop normal exploratory behavior, yell at the child or punish him. If there is an object that is fragile or expensive and the parent is worried about it, the object should be removed so that it does not tempt the child. Otherwise, encourage the child to play. A constant stream of “no”, “stop that”, “close that”, “put that back”, etc., is gradually tuned out and ignored by the child (think: the boy who cried ‘wolf’).

The important thing is to establish as few rules as possible, deciding in advance what will not be allowed. Make sure the rules are simple and clear—not general reprimands such as “behave”, “stop that” or “be good.” Make sure your expectations of the child are appropriate for his age and ability.

Have a plan ahead of time.

Decide in advance the consequences of breaking the rules, e.g. verbal or nonverbal disapproval, temporary isolation (time out), temporary deprivation of privilege or possession, or physical punishment. This last form of punishment is not recommended as it lends itself to abuse, teaches that might makes right, focuses on bad behavior, makes the child feel bad about himself, is temporary, and usually only serves to make the child feel angrier and more out of control.

If a rule is broken, proceed with one warning. The second time and every time thereafter apply the stated consequences immediately and without anger. Do not nag or lecture. Simply apply the consequences each time.

One of the best consequences for breaking rules, anything from hitting, biting, failure to follow direction, touching electronics, opening the refrigerator door, etc., is TIME-OUT.

Guidelines for using time-out

  1. Select a place for time-out, either a chair, a corner, or a playpen without toys. It should be a dull place, not a scary place.
  2. So as to not interfere with sleep later on, we do not recommend using a child’s bed or bedroom as the place for time-out.
  3. Obtain a portable kitchen timer.
  4. Rules—time is started when the child is quiet. It is reset if he makes noises or talks. If he gets up to leave time-out, replace him in the chair.
  5. If a rule is broken, simply and calmly say, “You did so-and-so. Go to time-out”. If he doesn’t, put him there with as little fuss as possible.
  6. Time out is brief—one minute for every year of age up to 5 years old is a general rule of thumb. Five minutes is plenty for children over 5 years old.
  7. After the allotted time-out, praise him for calming down and remaining calm. If he is angry or out of control, simply reset the timer. Once out of time-out do not continue to nag him about the incident. It is wise to take the child to a different part of the house and start him on a new activity. Praise him for his good behavior and use every opportunity to teach him correct behavior.

Special problems occur when there are several different people caring for the child—grandparents, babysitters, Dad, Mom, aunts and uncles. It is very important that everyone who takes care of the child be part of the same team with the same rules and ways of applying consequences. It is the responsibility of Mom and Dad to ensure that each caretaker knows and understands how they wish behavior to be handled.